Education is Falling Apart in Iraq

Violence is Emptying Schools and Universities

Iraqi Physician Rajaa al Khuzai Speaking about the crisis of education for women in Iraq | Photos: US Embassy

Rajaa al-Khuzai is one of the few doctors left in Iraq. To date, almost 18,000 physicians have fled the country, leaving the Iraqi hospitals in the hands of inexperienced junior doctors or medical students.

“So if you need to see a good ophthalmologist in Baghdad, you’ll never find one. If you want a good gynecologist … you’ll never find one,” said al-Khuzai in Vienna at a conference organized by the organization Women Without Borders (Frauen Ohne Grenzen) and the AmerikaHaus, part of the US Embassy Vienna Office of Public Affairs.

Since the beginning of the sectarian violence in 2004, universities and schools have been emptying out. Al-Khuzai said 30 percent of girls have dropped out of school while university students have no more professors to teach them.

Her daughter, Daliya Falah Shawkat, asked the Vienna international community to cooperate in a distance learning project. She said Iraqi students need to continue their education by getting lectures through video conferences.

“My friends, Iraq is the cradle of civilizations,” said al-Khuzai proudly. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, she is also proud that women’s rights evolved differently there than in other countries in the Middle East. Four women graduated from the first class at Iraq’s medical school in 1933, while the first female judge was appointed in 1943. Even under the regime of Saddam Hussein, women had a place in politics, although she is skeptical of how helpful the Ba’athist politicians were to Iraqi woman.

From earliest recorded history, Iraq has been an educated country. Cuneiform writing and the sexagesimal numeral system- the basis of the 60-minute time division- originated in Mesopotamia.

Other cultures that developed in the region, like the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, produced some of the first sciences: mathematics, laws and philosophies in the world.  The impact of this heritage was reflected by the end of the 20th Century, when the Iraqi education system “was one of the best in the region,” with a 100% gross enrollment in primary schools “and high levels of literacy for both men and women,” according to UNESCO.

But the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and the UN sanctions sent education standards into a tailspin. Girls felt the consequences most, al-Khuzai said, as 50 percent dropped out of school during the period of the sanctions.  Violence against women increased as poverty levels rose.

“Since the 1991 war, the position of women within Iraqi society has deteriorated rapidly. Women and girls were disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of the U.N. sanctions, and lacked access to food, health care, and education,” said Human Rights Watch in a 2003 report.  The human rights organization cited both the economic crisis and “Saddam Hussein’s decision to embrace Islamic and tribal traditions as a political tool in order to consolidate power,” as important factors in the deterioration of women’s rights in Iraq.

“A woman could not say anything against the regime even in her own home. Punishments increased — from cutting ears, nose or tongues, and the amputation of hands, to the decapitation of women using very sharp sword – and in the streets – to show the Iraqis …give them lessons,” wrote al-Khuzai for a conference at the Arab International Women’s Forum in London.

After the US-led coalition toppled Hussein in 2003, she cherished the idea of bringing those girls back to the classrooms and helping Iraqi women to stand on their feet economically through a micro-credit program funded by the World Bank. “But you never always get what you wish,” said al-Khuzai.

The future looks grim now, as the sectarian violence increases. Al-Jazeera reported that parents won’t even send their male children to school. Al-Khuzai herself is protected by an entourage of 69 bodyguards.

Just recently, on Nov. 14, about 150 Sunni and Shiite men at the Department of Scholarships, Culture and Reconstruction were kidnapped by a group of insurgents.

They were all freed but others have not run with the same luck. The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education said that at least 155 education professionals have been killed since 2003.

Edit Schlaffer, director of the Austrian-based organization Women Without Borders, is putting the resources of her organization behind efforts to increase women’s political participation, which she and Al-Khuzai agree is central to successful reconstruction in Iraq. Al-Khuzai’s task now is to keep up her micro-credit program despite the violence.

But until security is ensured, it will be hard to bring and keep teachers and professors inside Iraq or send children to school. For Al-Khuzai a “third force” imported from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran is responsible for the sectarian violence. To stop the flow of imported terrorists, she says, the government has to tighten security at the borders.

“We were just one nation,” she said, “I never believe Iraqi’s will kill each other.”

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